Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Question: "Where do we start?"

The Start Line ….

 It is where you start or is it? While teaching a class a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a pattern. Which on a normal day wouldn’t necessarily get me thinking. However always looking for opportunities to analyze large data sets to distill unrecognizable patterns through the use of statistics sometimes makes me wonder about what we miss. Or how simple things are lost in the flow of a class that might need more thought.
First the start line is an arbitrary line created for the purposes of starting the stopwatch to measure the time it takes the team to complete the search. It’s only really required for competition. I rarely, if ever place cones or tape in class to signify the place where a team is to start. Ironically it’s probably out of not taking enough time to setup the search area, or maybe its just I don’t see the value in telling each team where to start. The question that I always think about is did the dog know where the start line was, or did the handler cue them to start at the line by saying “find-it”?

Many teams have a well defined ritual; stop just before the start line, adjust equipment, tell dog to sit, wait, say “find-it”, or some other cue. Some of these rituals come from years of competing in other dog sports. Others make equipment changes or other adjustments some distance from the line and then pause or walk right over that line with out much significance at all. Is there a preferred method? I think some dogs start when the handler takes them out of the crate, I believe this because it takes the handler a great deal of energy to travel that short distance to the search area holding the dog back. Although not recommended, I think if they just opened the crate door many dogs would end up running into the training room in full search mode. Of course this would leave the handler running after them, hoping not to miss all the action. Although we love the drive we all get frustrated being pulled to the search area.

For this exercise I decided on a particular highly scientific test. It was inspired by another instructor’s diabolical torture of their class. Ok, it wasn’t that mean, depending on if you where one of the handlers. I adapted for this exercise for this class but I expect the effect was the same. Here is what prompted my silly exercise. Not all, but enough handlers would say find-it when entering the training room regardless of a small search area in the corner of the room. I deciding it was a good time to discuss the purpose of the start line since several trial questions had come up in this class.

In watching the teams, I wondered how could I drive home the point to everyone how focused we are on our rituals. If they didn’t say anything or do any of the ritual tasks, does the dog still start to search? Sort of like testing if your dog pays more attention to the verbal cue (sit, down) or your body language one (hand cue, etc). So if you don’t say anything but just walk into the search areas doesn’t the dog begin to search just with the presence of odor.

The rules of this handler torture; if the handler said “find-it” or any other cue prior to the dogs nose crossing the start line the penalty would be for the handler to put their dog up. Since everyone followed directions we will never know if I would have required them to put their dog up, but the looks received were very memorable. Each dog went to work, no surprise. But that wasn’t really in question, right? I’ve noticed sometimes that us humans coop patterns from watching others. Take class long enough with a group of people, and the handlers start to mimic each other. Maybe it’s easier for us human to read the body language of each other better than watching the dog’s body language. I know this happens on occasion, just run a threshold drill in class where every search has a threshold source and watch everyone start to stop at that imaginary start line. Not on purpose, but maybe some positive peer pressure, it works for that team so maybe I should stop at the start line and have my dog sit. Many dogs however do not conform in this way. They adapt to the handler, sometimes we perceive their lack of adapting as rebellion, but maybe it’s just the desire to get to work, to drive forward and succeed.
Atlas trying to drag me. Our first Trial, Colorado 2012.
Luckily he is only 30 lbs. and not 60.

I’ve stopped at the start line, I know there are rituals that I go through, however I try to not let those override the dog choosing where to start. This is not to say there is “one” correct way but sometimes understanding why we do certain rituals its good to reevaluate, step back and analyze if that is still needed. We may have created those rituals to introduce our dogs to the game but what if we could work with our dog and become faster, efficient, more focused and a better team by looking at what we do to contribute.

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